For Teachers: What is an Archive?

A student exploring the achives at Seven Stories

A student exploring the achives at Seven Stories

© Culture Street

    • Archives are collections of information known as records. In an archive, you can find records like birth, marriage and death certificates, censuses, maps and plans, newspaper articles – even old school registers. You can also find photos, films, music, letters, journals and other 2D materials. Sometimes an archive will include objects and paintings. The records and items may be digital and made available online.

      Find out more from the National Archive here.

      Archives will usually let you look at the things in their collection (you may need to make an appointment first). Some archives have exhibitions, sessions, workshops and websites that make it easy for you to see the best stuff they have.

      Here are some links to nationally relevant archives:

      The National Archive is the official archive and publisher for the UK government. They are the guardians of some of England and Wales’ most iconic national documents, dating back over 1,000 years from the Domesday book – their oldest item, to the Magna Carta, Guy Fawkes’ signed confession, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen’s wills, Edwards VIII’s signed letter of abdication, even Hitler’s fake passport.

      The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and the largest library in the world. The Library's collections include around 14 million books, along with manuscripts and historical items dating back as far as 2000 BC including the original, handwritten version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Captain Scott’s diary and the famous Indian epic - the Ramayana.

      The Parliamentary Archive holds several million historical records relating to Parliament, dating from 1497 including the death warrant for Charles I signed by Oliver Cromwell and acts which abolished the transatlantic slave trade in Britain.

      The Black Cultural Archive collects, preserves and celebrates the heritage and history of Black people in Britain.

      The Women’s Library at LSE documents all aspects of women’s lives, with a particular emphasis on the lives of women in the UK and the great political, economic and social changes of the past 150 years.

      And here are some more specialist ones:

      Old Bailey Online - containing 197,745 criminal trials, this is the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published.

      Hidden Lives Revealed
      – a virtual archive providing an intriguing encounter with children who were in the care of The Children's Society in late Victorian and early 20th Century Britain.

      John Murray Archive -  contains manuscripts, private letters and business papers from authors who shaped the modern world through their writings, including Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

      Roald Dahl Archive - a lifetime's worth of letters, early manuscripts – written, famously, in pencil on yellow legal pads and much, much more.

      You can search for your local archive here.

      Most museums also have their own archives. The National Maritime Museum's manuscripts collection is the largest and most important dedicated archive for the study of maritime history in the world. The collection is so big it takes up four miles of shelf space. It covers all aspects of British seafaring history from the 14th to the 20th centuries including a Tudor spy book, pirate journals and the first photos of survivors from the Titanic.

      Or you could have a go at making your own archive with this helpful guide from Show Me.
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